Brave New World (& For Whom the Bell Tolls)

So, it is time to tell the world what we are doing—hence the swopping of languages. “We” are the digital branch of Stockholm City Library, and we run and develop the digital library, as well various systems needed for the entire organisation. We provide 14 % of all the Swedish e-books, and we advocate user-driven innovation to improve and to develop new services. Asking the users about what they want saves us from guessing, and this summer we asked the borrowers of e-books and other e-media about their reading and borrowing habits, thoughts and hopes, wishes and demands for the future.

About 20 % of the visitors took some of their time to help us by answering the quite rich questionnaire (compared to the 5 % that can be expected on average). The most striking thing was that they loved borrowing e-books from the library. “Best thing ever happened during my time as a borrower” said one respondent.

That e-books are increasingly popular comes as no shock—the e-loan figures were doubled between 2010 and 2011, and this year they will double again. This means that a total of 150 000 e-loans will have been completed through us by the end of this year.

The visitors of course liked the most obvious advantages: it is easy, you can do it in the middle of the night in your own home and you don’t have to worry about returning your book (or paying the fee if you are overdue—the book just disintegrates itself when your 28 days are up).

Some figures:

  • 21 % have obtained their library card only to borrow e-media. In this group, 63 % were male.
  • 69 % borrow more e-media compared to one year ago.
  • 79 % believe they will borrow ever more e-media in the future.
  • 75 % would borrow more if there were a greater number of titles available.

The Way We Live Now: Midnight’s Children & Catch-22

Most of the e-books were borrowed when the physical library was closed. 55 % read on a tablet, 19 % on an e-book reader and 28 % on a smartphone (the figure exceeding 100 % because multiple choices were allowed—some people just can’t make up their minds!). 

E-PUB is the youngest, yet the dominant format. About 2/3 of all e-media was downloaded as an E-PUB file, and Bluefire reader was the most popular way to decipher it.

The visitors to the digital library assured us that they usually do finish their e-books—57 % said they did so, whilst for physical books the figure was slightly lower.

The comments showed that the borrowers were true library lovers: many agonised over the fact that e-books are supposedly expensive (meaning bad) for the library. The cost is high-ish, but that is only because e-books are popular. And as a library, you cannot whine when you are supplying the citizens with what they want. Also, there are costs (in fact, higher costs) deriving from the lending out of physical books too.

A Confederacy of Dunces: The Idiot & The Clan of the Cave Bear

The fondness for books showed by the respondents does not stretch as far as the cradle (or kindergarten) for the books: the publishers. Quite the reverse: the publishing industry is hit by the sound and the fury of the borrowers.

Apart from the highly priced e-books (for libraries as well as book buyers), the borrowers are annoyed with the quarantine the publishers subject their books to: when an e-book is released, it will not become available for borrowing until two, three or maybe more months later.

“Stone age” says one, ”To treat your best customers as enemies is like putting a bullet in your own foot and the total opposite of a successful game plan” says another.

Even though the survey says that people will not buy an e-book in quarantine (they rather wait and grit their teeth), the figures show that the e-book borrowers are, to a large extent, the e-book buyers as well. Not surprisingly, the more money you earn, the more e-books you buy. So the well-to-do booklover borrow or buy what s/he wants, and the poor booklover waits—maybe in vain. In some cases, the publishers decide that certain titles will never be eligible for the libraries.

This very uncertain state of the e-book must change. Right now, the negotiations between the central parties (libraries/publishers) are on hold. In the meantime, we discuss solutions with those interested, and try to make the most of what we have.

And we do have loving borrowers. Thank you all and especially those who answered the survey. You make it all worthwhile!  

If you want to know more about the state and possible fate of the e-book in Sweden, please contact Mikael Petrén, Head of the Digital Library.
If you want to discuss the survey in great detail, contact Daniel Andersson.
If you wish to know anything else about the Stockholm City Library, contact Head of Information, Anna Wåglund Söderström.

Brave New World:

For Whom the Bell Tolls:

The Way We Live Now:

Midnight’s Children:


A Confederacy of Dunces:

The Idiot:

The clan of the Cave Bear:

The Sound and the Fury:

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